PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - The result remains hotly disputed, but Cambodia’s recent general election has put long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen on a collision course with a resurgent opposition and revealed widespread unhappiness with his iron-fisted rule.
While analysts aren’t writing off the chances of the politically ruthless Hun Sen ruling for another five years, they said the result signals a restive and youthful Cambodian population eager for change.
Both Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have claimed victory in the July 28 poll. The official result will not be announced until Thursday, at the earliest.
CNRP president and long-time opposition leader Sam Rainsy declared himself prime minister on Monday and called for a mass demonstration in Phnom Penh on Tuesday that could augur months of political deadlock and possibly violent protests.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the CPP won 68 seats, while the CNRP won 55. The CNRP says it won 63 and the CPP 60. It also claimed 1.3 million names were missing from electoral rolls and that Hun Sen’s party stuffed ballot boxes with illegal votes.
Even by Hun Sen’s own count, the election represents a dismal performance by an Asian strongman viewed during the campaign as all but invincible.
Many Cambodians feel CPP policies have enriched a select few and created a yawning poverty gap, analysts say. Huge tracts of land have been granted to foreign companies while the poor fight eviction with little hope of justice from the police or courts.
CPP policies are “out of step with a more and more open society”, said independent social analyst Kem Ley, adding Hun Sen’s control of the media was less effective now many that many people get information from internet social media outlets.
Kem Ley believes a CNRP boycott of parliament could lead to mass protests led by young Cambodians. “It’s going to be like Egypt,” he said.
Frustrations also fester in the civil service, say analysts, where low-ranking officials have watched their superiors grow rich while their own wages have stagnated.
The CNRP’s election promises included pay rises for civil servants and garment workers.
Hun Sen made conciliatory remarks after the election, saying his party was ready to talk to the election commission and the opposition about alleged irregularities.
He has since reverted to a more familiar tone of defiance, warning that if the opposition boycotts parliament its seats will be redistributed to other political parties.
In a recent speech he publicly scorned U.S. lawmakers for their pre-election threats to cut financial assistance unless the election was deemed fair. “Don’t talk so much,” he said. “If you want to cut, just cut it.”
He also suggested the generosity of China, Cambodia’s biggest investor and close diplomatic ally, would compensate for any cut in $1 million of U.S. military aid.
But Hun Sen’s hailing of close ties with Beijing could backfire with many Cambodians, who resent China’s economic and political dominance of their tiny country.
Hun Sen, 61, who once vowed to stay in office until his mid-70s, will focus on retaining power rather than addressing popular discontent, said analyst Kem Ley.
“There is no way (the CPP) will reform to gain popularity,” he said.
But CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, who called the election result “a victory for our people”, acknowledged his party must pay greater heed to the youth.
“Their thinking is not the same as the old people like us, so we must turn to them ... and give young people what they want,” he recently told journalists.
Despite a poor election result, Hun Sen will not face any leadership challenge from inside the CPP, said Lao Mong Hay, a veteran Cambodian human rights activist.
“He has centralized all power and prevented his colleagues from proving themselves and rising to prominence,” he said.
Hun Sen has comfortably won every election since Cambodia returned to full democracy in 1998 after decades of war and turmoil that included the 1975-79 “Killing Fields” rule of the Khmer Rouge.
This time, however, he faced formidable opposition from the CNRP, formed after two parties merged last year and boosted by Sam Rainsy’s return from exile in July after a royal pardon removed the threat of a jail term hanging over his head.
CNRP allegations of election fraud are being investigated by the National Election Committee, a government body viewed as dominated by the CPP.
“It is inconceivable to me that Hun Sen would allow any investigation that he couldn’t control,” said Carl Thayer, a Cambodia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra. “This election result will not be the end of Hun Sen for the next five years. But his pledge to say in office until he is in his seventies looks shaky.”
Editing by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Robert Birsel